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Life Lessons from the Trail #15: Little Things Can Have A Big Impact

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

By the end of a recent session, Hayden was pretty comfortable in the air... on my mountain bike...

30 millimetres. That's 3 centimetres, or just over an inch in imperial terms. If you estimate this space using your thumb and index finger, you'll see that it's not that big a gap. That is the difference in width between the handlebars on my mountain bike compared with Hayden's bike - 750mm versus 780 mm. And that little difference in width made an enormous difference in Hayden's ability to control a bike, to shift his body weight around on it dynamically and be able to do the lessons he'd been learning on the day and apply them effectively to his riding.

On his own bike, sporting a similar sized frame to my Norco, those extra 3 centimetres obviously spread his arms out wider. And while in theory, this extra width could add stability to his riding, for Hayden and his physique, it also made it difficult for Hayden to transfer his weight forward and backwards dynamically. You see, that extra 3 centimetres of width is just enough to extend his arms outwards and take away his ability to move in small amounts. Instead, his body movements as he attempted to adjust his weight for particular techniques were large and jerky, relative to what they needed to be. It just made it difficult enough for him to get the hang of some of the things he was trying to learn to do.

On his own bike, we found that Hayden kept positioning himself either too far forward or too far back. The wider handlebars made it difficult for him to shift his body into a centred position while jumping.

It's not something that Hayden or his father, Rod, realised when they joined me for the lesson, but quickly became apparent as we progressed through the session. The moment Hayden jumped onto a bike with narrower handlebars, not only did he feel like he was in more control, he was able to much more easily put into practice the specific skills we were working on (which also led to his feeling of control). Once he began to get the hang of things, Hayden very quickly progressed - all from jumping a bike that was just a little bit different to the one that he came to the lesson on.

But handlebar width is such a little thing that it is often easily over looked as a possible reason for a rider experiencing difficulties on their bike.

That wasn't the only area of riding during this session where they realised little things could make a big difference to their riding. Cornering was one area where both Rod and Hayden were looking to improve in. Both of them knew the theoretical technique, actually what to do while cornering. But the simple act of continually going around a set of cones to reinforce what they knew in their heads was all it took to begin embedding the skills of cornering. Rod actually remarked that it never occurred to him to just ride around and around to get the hang of the technique. It was just a little thing.

Getting the hang of technique through practice and repetition. Rod knew the theory, but had never just put that theory into practice by going around and around.

As much as we'd all love to believe that getting a fancy, new mountain bike with all of the bells and whistles will instantly make us a better rider, that isn't the case. Better equipment can definitely help, but the reality is that won't ever fix everything. And that is because when it comes down to it, it is the sum of the little things that make a massive overall difference.

A two centimetre shift of your foot on your pedals can determine which muscles you use in your legs to either increase your strength and stability, or focus on pedalling efficiency. A twist of your ankle can divert your entire body weight to the front or rear of your bike. Having a single finger instead of two on your brakes can decrease the muscle tension your arms, relax your shoulders and allow your body to respond naturally to the trail. Looking up in the direction you're going instead of down at your front wheel and the obstacle immediately in front of you can shift your focus to where you want to be, rather than where you're afraid of crashing.

All little things. All have the potential to have a big impact to your riding. Imagine what happens when you begin to combine all of those little things together.

Using two fingers while braking on a mountain bike instead of one means you also only have two fingers on the handle bars. It also creates tension in your triceps which leads to a stiffness in your upper body while braking.

Naturally, the "little things" principle applies to many life activities. My running journey started out with a one kilometre walk with the dog in the morning. One kilometre became two, which quickly became five - and then a short, slow jog. Overtime, little improvements to my morning outing with my dog turned into longer and faster runs. These days, that amounts to 150 kilometres of running a month, including squeezing in a half marathon each month. And incidentally, I still don't see myself as a runner, as it's not something I'm naturally good at or ever used to enjoy. It's just now something that I do, something that built up a little bit over time.

Contrast that with just leaping into what in business buzz word lingo is often known as a 'Big Hairy Audacious Goal', a BHAG (that actually looks ridiculous when I think about it). If someone had challenged me to do a single half marathon last year, I would have laughed it off as something that just wasn't for me. And if I'd accepted the challenge and just tried to run as far as I could straight away, I would have failed, been discouraged and probably given up. It just the simple act of adding a little bit of extra distance every few weeks that have led to me running eight half marathons this year - usually before going to work.

Buddy and I on one of our morning walks last winter. I don't get a chance to take these photos anymore - mostly because we're running instead of walking now.

It's not that having lofty goals and ambitions is a bad thing. It's just that all too often people focus on this grandiose idea of what they want to be at the end. They dismiss the simple idea that they first need to get good at the little things first. In my work dealings, I call it "looking for the silver bullet", that singular idea that will solve all of the problems and turn a business into a roaring, overnight success. And while silver bullets may exist, whether they will actually help you solve your problem - well I'll challenge that every time.

Rather than focussing on taking the little, almost boring steps towards a goal or outcome, there can be a tendency for people to try to short cut the process. Or worse, they'll just focus on where they want to be and believe somehow they'll magically end up where they want to be, without putting the work needed to reach their desired destination. But taking a single step forward, is a step closer to a goal. Staying stationary and imagining that you're there - that definitely doesn't.

Your mind tends to like to progress in little steps as well. Before you can tackle the big challenges, it's best to first tackle the little ones and build up a repertoire of skills and experience.

So if you're finding that you just don't seem to be making any headway with whatever endeavour it is you're pursuing, stop and take a minute to look at what little things you could do to take a small step forward. Take that step, and then look for the next little thing that you can do.

With a bit of luck, and a lot of little steps, one day you may find that you've moved much further forward than you'd previously thought possible.

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